Vittoria Hunter and her family have a ritual of breakfast at their local Waffle House in Little Rock every weekend. For about a year, they have requested to sit in the section of their favorite waiter, Devonte Gardner.
“Devonte always treats everyone with kindness, and he always knows exactly what I want: hash browns with cheese and eggs with cheese,” said Kayzen, who is in second grade.
During a Waffle House visit a few months ago with his grandfather, John Donofrio, Kayzen said he learned a little more information about Gardner’s life.
“Devonte said he wondered if anyone might know where he could buy a cheap car — he’d been having a hard time saving for one,” Kayzen said.
He and his grandfather learned that day that Gardner had been walking several miles a day to and from work and was living in a motel room with his wife and two daughters. About eight months earlier, they had to move out of an apartment that was infested with rats and contaminated with black mold, Gardner said.
Kayzen, upset that his friend had fallen on hard times, went home and told his mom about Gardner’s situation.
“He kept saying, ‘We have to start a GoFundMe and help Devonte get a car,’” Hunter recalled. “He didn’t give up on it. He’s a kid with a big heart.”
On Feb. 18, Hunter said she agreed to help Kayzen set up a GoFundMe page, with the goal of raising $5,000 toward new wheels for Gardner.
When a local news station found out, donations began to pour in, and the fund quickly soared to more than $30,000 — enough for a car and to pay for an apartment for Gardner’s family for the next year, she said.
Gardner, 29, said he was stunned when he learned what his young customer had done.
“I started crying — I’d been quietly struggling and didn’t want to ask anybody for anything,” he said, explaining that he uses most of his tips to pay his family’s $60 per day motel bill.
His wife, Aissa Shorter, was recently hired at a local McDonald’s, and they work opposite shifts so they can care for their daughters, Jade, 3, and Amoura, 2, Gardner said.
“We had to give up most of our belongings because of the mold, but we’re slowly working our way back,” he said.
“I love working at Waffle House because I have an opportunity to make people feel good every day,” Gardner added. “I love the people who come in, especially Kayzen. For this little guy to do this out of the kindness of his heart is really humbling.”
Gardner said he thought people related to his financial challenges because millions of Americans have a hard time paying for housing, transportation and food as the cost of living soared last year and paychecks don’t keep up with inflation.
More than 37 million Americans live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and in recent years, studies have found that about 13 million people are disconnected from federal programs that help with housing, child care, food stamps and nutrition.
“Even when you can work double shifts, it’s hard to get ahead,” Gardner said. “I’m thankful to have a job that I enjoy, but it’s hard to save enough to improve my family’s situation.”
“It can really feel overwhelming sometimes,” he added.
Vittoria Hunter and her husband, Korey Hunter, said they could sympathize with Gardner’s predicament because in 2019 they left a rental house that had been contaminated with black mold.
“Vittoria got really sick from it, and Kayzen got rashes on his arm,” said Korey Hunter, 37, noting that he and his wife have a blended family that also includes three teenagers.
“Our water heater leaked, and mold grew in the wall and blew out everywhere through the air conditioner return,” he said. “Everything in the house was ruined.”
Korey Hunter works as an electrician while Vittoria Hunter sells real estate and runs a small business raising Maine coon cats.
“It took a long time, but we’re thankful that we could rebuild our lives,” Korey Hunter said. “It was important to Kayzen — and to us — to help Devonte do the same.”
Many of Gardner’s other customers were quick to jump in and help.
“This guy is ALWAYS in a good mood and a hard worker!” one man commented about Gardner on the GoFundMe page. He donated $25.
“I’ve experienced what [Devonte] is experiencing and I love it that he continues to spread joy despite his struggles,” added a woman who donated $20.
People were also touched by Kayzen’s concern for Gardner and his family.
“This is the definition of community,” one person wrote on the GoFundMe page. “You’ll be a leader, no doubt, Kayzen.”
Kayzen said he was surprised and excited that so many people wanted to help his Waffle House friend.
“Devonte is a positive person who works hard to make everyone happy,” Kayzen said. “Sometimes people just need a little help.”
Gardner said he plans to move his family into a one-bedroom apartment later this month and go shopping for a car, thanks to the generosity of Kayzen and the Little Rock community.
“I’m really touched deeply by it all,” he said. “And as far as my little buddy goes, he’s my best friend for life.”